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Ram married his daughter is ambiguous because:

Marry means marry somebody to become a spouse.

The second meaning is perform the marriage ritual as a priest.

So, if Ram is a priest he can marry his daughter.

I don't think native speakers ever say that but nonnative speakers sometimes say it in the sense of I got my daughter married.

Suppose native speakers hear that sentence, how would they understand it?

43

Your sentence is no different from any other verb with multiple meanings. For example:

  • Ram played with his daughter could mean that they played backgammon together, played football together, or played instruments together
  • Ram ran with his daughter could mean they went for a jog together, or they were running an election campaign together
  • Ram spoke with his daughter could mean they had a conversation, or mean they were co-presenters at a conference
  • Ram banked with his daughter could mean they had a joint checking account, or were together in the cockpit of a turning airplane
  • Ram drove with his daughter could mean his daughter was riding in his car, or that they were both on horse bringing cattle back to their ranch

Your question is: How do native speakers interpret such ambiguous sentences? The same ways a non-native speaker would:

  • By context. Rarely are such sentences used in isolation; they are usually part of a longer conversation or found in a longer paragraph. Quite often, surrounding context will make it clear which meaning is intended. If I say, "Ram spoke with his daughter, and afterwards they got a standing ovation," it becomes very unlikely that I'm talking about a private chit-chat at a small café.
  • By setting. Cars are ubiquitous in today's society; cattle drives not so much. Although "Ram drove with his daughter" could mean they were on two horses, chances are they were in an automobile.
  • By asking for clarification. Let's say I ask a friend of mine, "What's new?" and he answers, "Ram married his daughter." If I knew Ram was a priest, I might ask, "Did he officiate the ceremony?" On the other hand, if the conversation begins with, "I wonder if anyone in the priesthood has ever performed a wedding ceremony for one of their children," then the response, "Ram married his daughter," takes on an entirely different meaning.
  • By giggling. Sometimes potential ambiguity leads to humorous results. Some blog posts list hilarious newspaper headlines, like 4-H Girls Win Prizes for Fat Calves and Drunk Gets Nine Months in Violin Case. (In that latter case, it's pretty obvious that case refers to a court case, not an instrument case, but we can all still laugh at the ambiguity and the funny imagery it conjures.)

Incidentally, the phenomenon you inquire about is called polysemy, and you can read all about it in Wikipedia. The humorist Groucho Marx employed polysemes brilliantly, with gems like:

  • Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.
  • One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas, I'll never know.
  • I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it.
  • 14
    Just to add confusion "Ram banked with his daughter" could also mean that the daughter was a banker and Ram had an account at her bank. "Time flies like an arrow" has 3 possible interpretations. Not only Groucho Marx's humorous one and the obvious "time passes quickly" or "time only passes in one direction" but also "when measuring the flight of flies, use the same method as you would for arrows" – Peter Jennings Sep 26 at 11:10
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    @PeterJ - Yes, I wasn't trying to be exhaustive in my list of possible interpretations. ...drove with his daughter could mean they were professional truckers, for example, while ...played with his daughter could also mean hide-and-seek, or a tea party with his daughter's dolls. – J.R. Sep 26 at 11:49
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    'Ram played with his daughter' could mean he used her as a toy, e.g. a skittle. I'm beginning to not like this Ram guy. If he wrote with his daughter, he either co-authored something with her, or dipped her in ink and used her as a pen. – Michael Harvey Sep 26 at 20:04
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    @MichaelH - Ram wrote jokes with his daughter; Michael Harvey wrote jokes with his keyboard. – J.R. Sep 26 at 20:08
  • "The same ways a non-native speaker would" I'd add "The same way as you'd do it in any other language". – Bodo Thiesen Sep 29 at 13:18
25

Yes, technically it is ambiguous, but in reality not so much - a native speaker would always extend/qualify the statement, along the lines of "Ram married his daughter to 'someone' ", or possibly "Ram married his daughter off" precisely because it is such an obvious and known ambiguity.

6

I'm a native speaker. Without any context, I would interpret it as Ram got married to his daughter, if only because that's the more common use of the word "marry". However it's still ambiguous, so context is crucial. If you're going to use it without much context, you might want to rephrase it, e.g. depending on what you mean,

  • Ram took his daughter as his bride. (Ram is the groom)
  • Ram married his daughter to (someone). (Ram performs the wedding)

By the way, there's also a phrasal verb "marry off" which means to find a spouse, e.g. Ram married his daughter off to (someone).

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    If we interpret the sentence as "Ram got married to his daughter", then we'd also probably assume that the daughter was not Ram's daughter, but someone else's daughter, because father-daughter matrimonies are even less common than other uses of the verb marry. – J.R. Sep 27 at 0:51
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    As a native speaker I always have to re-parse any sentence like this, but I've never misunderstood the intended meaning when it's coming from a parent, preacher, etc. who is unlikely to have gotten married to the person in question and is more likely to have participated in the wedding in some capacity such as matchmaker or officiator. – MichaelS Sep 27 at 2:40
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    @J.R. Plus, Context is King: If the preceding sentence were "This is my good friend, John", then "his" in "Ram married his daughter" implicitly refers to John - and taking the sentence in isolation causes additional ambiguity. But the "got married to" / "presided over the marriage of" ambiguity is still present – Chronocidal Sep 27 at 15:00
4

As a native speaker I can tell you the order of interpretations I would have.

  • Ram got married to his own daughter (Ram is the groom, Ram's daughter is the bride). This one comes first only because the shock value of such a statement makes me do a double take. Such a marriage is highly unusual (and illegal in most nations), and the oddness of it grabs my attention.

  • Ram got married to some unnamed mans' daughter (Ram is the groom, some unnamed man's daughter is the bride). In English we have something called a "missing antecedent." This is when one uses a pronoun like "his" when there's no clear person that it could be referring to. I could assume that I missed part of a conversation where they said who the man was, and then talked about "his daughter." If we followed the conversation, there'd be no question as to which "he" was being referred to, because the former case is so absurd and there's an obvious second male in the conversation.

  • Ram married off his daughter (Ram is the father of the bride, who walked Ram's daughter down the isle). We have a phrase "marry off" which is almost always used in reference to daughters. It comes from a time where a daughter was more of a burden than a son (can't work the farm as well and won't be socially responsible for taking care of the parents). Such a phrasing is much less common in modern culture where we don't think that way, but you'll still see the phrase. An omitted word like "off" is a reasonable thing in speech, though I would not expect to see it in written word.

  • Ram officiated a marriage of an unnamed man's daughter (Ram is the priest, the groom is not mentioned) - Very few people are priests, so statistically speaking it is unlikely that this is the right interpretation. However, if I have any reason to believe Ram is a priest, this becomes very natural. I say the daughter is not his because...

  • Ram officiated his own daughter's marriage (Ram is the priest, Ram's daughter is the bride, groom is unmentioned). This one feels odd to me because there's something resembling a conflict of interests. It seems odd to me to be both the official doing the marriage and family at the same time. However, I cannot back this feeling up with any hard facts about any given denomination's approach to officiating one's own daughter's marriage, so this case may be more common than I give it credit.

1

There's another interpretation nobody has mentioned, and it depends on the "his" having a referent other than "Ram". But I would expect that the context to at least suggest that, if not make it clear.

Joe's extended family grew when Ram married his daughter.

I would read this to mean that Ram married Joe's daughter.

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